One of the most important questions ever asked was posed almost two millennia ago by a group of the Lord’s disciples as they gathered with their Master outside the eastern wall of the city of Jerusalem. Like a powerful cyclone, recent dramatic events had been swirling about this body of a dozen men, leaving them off-balance, confused, and insecure. In the midst of all their confusion, their Rabbi stunned them with the announcement that He was leaving; that they would not see Him for an indefinite, extended period of time. Their response to His announcement was predictable. With a sense of urgency, they asked, “And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world [age]?” (Matthew 24:3). Implicit in their query was the idea that His “coming” would be as Israel’s Messiah and as befitting a conquering king. They were totally unaware, however, that His “coming” would be on the other side of Calvary – that He had to die first, and that more than 1,900 years would intervene between their day and the return of their King.
Their question, though asked so long ago, takes on special significance today because it served as a catalyst for Christ’s teaching of end-time events. Excluding the twenty-two chapters comprising the Book of Revelation, the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21) is the most significant and far-reaching portion of prophetic Scripture in the New Testament. It is a towering mountain peak in its significance; and there is no exaggeration nor hyperbole in stating that if one understands the Olivet Discourse, major end-time events begin to fall into place like an exquisite mosaic.
In the first section of the Discourse, Jesus gave a series of urgent warnings.
- He warned that prior to His coming and the end of the age, there will be false Christs, wars, famine, and pestilence (the first half of Daniel’s seventieth week; that is, the final seven years of this era of human history). And as severe as these things will be, they will be only the “beginning of sorrows [birth pangs]” (Matthew 24:4-8).
- He warned that prior to His coming and the end of the age, Christians will be persecuted, betrayed, and martyred, but that those who “endure [literally, ‘bear up courageously under suffering’] unto the end” of the age will be saved. This is a reference not to new birth in Christ, but to physical deliverance by rapture before the Day of the Lord judgment begins (Matthew 24:9-14).
- He warned that prior to His coming and the end of the age (and at the precise middle of the seventieth week), there will be an abomination of desolation; literally, a desolating sacrilege on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem in the Temple. The Antichrist will erect an image of himself as he seeks to assimilate the Jewish nation into his movement toward a global or regional government, which may take the form of a Muslim caliphate. Jewish people who do not submit to his authority and leadership, evidenced by the fact that they do not receive “a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads” (Revelation 13:16), will be slain. This period of time is called the “time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7). It is also called by the Lord, the “Great Tribulation.” If those days of great tribulation were not shortened (amputated to less than 3½ years in duration), no believers would survive (Matthew 24:15-22).
- He warned that during the Great Tribulation and prior to His coming and the end of the age, false Christs and false prophets, empowered by Satan, will perform impressive false signs to authenticate their false message. Their intent will be to get the Jewish people (those who have not bowed to the image of the Antichrist and have fled to the caves and dens of the mountains to escape his wrath) out of concealment in order to slay them (Matthew 24:23-26).
- He warned that the true sign of His coming will occur immediately after the shortened Tribulation, and, in contrast to the false signs, it will be both conspicuous and universal (Matthew 24:27-28).